Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough, former president of Georgia Tech.

Some people may think of the Smithsonian Institution as only a collection of museums in Washington. But over the last two years as head of the Smithsonian, former Georgia Institute of Technology president G. Wayne Clough has learned first-hand about the complexity of the organization.

The Smithsonian conducts scientific research in 100 countries. There are Smithsonian telescopes in Chile, Hawaii and Antarctica and a tropical research center in Panama. The Smithsonian is breeding an endangered species called Przewalski’s horse and reintroducing it into Mongolia and other countries. 

It is helping Haiti recover art treasures buried under rubble from the January earthquake. It is training museum curators from Singapore, Abu Dhabi and other cities across the world.  

And this is just a sampling of the programs on this planet.

The Smithsonian also operates telescopes in outer space in a program with NASA.

“You can say we are international, but you could also say we go intergalactic,” Dr. Clough told GlobalAtlanta in a recent interview.

Dr. Clough was in Atlanta April 5 for the dedication of a building on the Georgia Tech campus in his honor, the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons. The $85 million, five-story building includes classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories and offices.

Dr. Clough, who was born in the South Georgia city of Douglas, served as Georgia Tech’s president from September 1994 though March 2008. He is the only Georgia Tech alum to ever serve as president.

He expressed gratitude for the new building named for him and the opportunities that have been possible because of his time at Georgia Tech.

“I grew up a country boy,” he said. “Georgia Tech really opened a lot of doors for me.”

His new job as the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has been a learning experience, said Dr. Clough. Like Georgia Tech, the Smithsonian is an educational institution, but instead of a select group of students, it has the entire world as a potential audience.

The Smithsonian owns 137 million objects. Among Dr. Clough’s favorites are the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and a bird specimen from scientist Charles Darwin‘s personal collection.

“It’s a national treasure,” Dr. Clough said of the Smithsonian. “It’s a world treasure.”

He feels fortunate to be leading the Smithsonian at a time when technology has made it possible to greatly expand the reach of the institution.

The museums were once open only to those who could travel to Washington, and even now the visitors are limited to viewing only a small percentage of the museum items, since most are not on display but in storage facilities in Maryland.

Now, anyone with an Internet connection can explore the Smithsonian. 

“You don’t have to go to the museum unless you want to,” said Dr. Clough. “We are literally bringing the museum to the people.”

The Smithsonian even has its own iPhone application. Clicking on the app can guide the user through the Smithsonian’s Human Origins exhibit and more.

“It will allow you to morph a photo of yourself into a neanderthal,” said Dr. Clough. 

Another app lets a user to click on a picture of Amelia Earhart‘s airplane and then not only see the plane but take a virtual flight in it, said Dr. Clough.

“Ten years from now, who knows what we will be doing?” he said.

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